Going out for breakfast doesn't seem to be a common thing in Tokyo. Other than a (very) few American-style cafes there aren't many options for eating out that we could find. On our first day we hit up a cafe near our hotel where I had a bagel and an iced COLD DRIP COFFEE (in this totally non-hipster cafe)!!!
For the rest of our stay The Boy would duck across the road to our local Family Mart (just like a 7/11 only more awesome because it's Japanese) and bring back breakfast for us to eat in our room. My order was always a pork katsu sandwich that came snuggled up alongside a lovely potato salad sambo. Good stuff. Oh, and an iced-coffee in a paper carton too of course!
Yes, vending machines are EVERYWHERE in Tokyo...on the street, on the train platforms and even outside apartment buildings. The ones we saw mostly served drinks...but there must be some food ones out there too, right?
Plastic food is also everywhere. That said, it may be everywhere but this plastic fantastic spaghetti Cabonara didn't look enticing enough to get us to go inside...
On our first day in Tokyo I found exactly what my tummy was craving...Udon Noodles. The set up is pretty much just the same as my beloved Menya Mappen back home - which means Mappen must be authentic, right? My previous Mappen experience came in useful as it meant I knew exactly how this canteen-style udon place worked. For the first time ever I added grilled pork to my Ontama Bukkake and can I just say...OMG (I did try this at Menya recently and it wasn't very OMG, sadly)!
Also on our first day we went for a bit of a wander through the lanes of Harajuku where we stumbled across a "Mochi-making party" in a cafe courtyard. As we stood back looking bewilderingly at what was going on we were invited to come and try pounding some of the rice into Mochi dough. This was done using a traditional wooden bucket and big wooden mallets.
Our skills with the hammer drew cheers from the crowd and we were invited to stay and try the Mochi which was served as a big gloopy ball of dough topped with powered beans (or with soy sauce if that's your thing). I've only ever had Mochi that has been rolled into a thin sheet and wrapped around red bean paste (or better skill, ice-cream) and the sticky dough was totally impossible for me to eat with with chopsticks. I ended up trying to shove the dough into my mouth using my fingers (thus totally loosing any cred I'd built up with my awesome mallet skills).
I was also pretty chuffed to see little containers of herbs and veggies growing in pots and wooden crates in amongst the cafes courtyard...seems that small space gardening is a global phenomenon.
I've heard a lot about the basement level of department stores being a great place to visit if you're into food...or if you're just generally feeling peckish. Think David Jones Food Hall - but 1000 time better, with much more variety (and 1000 times more people). The food here is not "cheap eats", but really it's still not that pricey for the quality you are getting. These basements are a fun place to look around, you can buy food to take-away or sit in at one of the little eateries around the edges.
The department store basement we visited had a Kit Kat Chocolatory so we joined the queue to see what was on offer...which wasn't very much, just two flavours. I had thought this Chocolatory would have piles of different flavours but alas it wasn't to be. We bought both Kit Kat flavours on offer (cream cheese = OMFG good, and chili = meh).
We tried ramen only twice on our trip, forgoing the ever-popular "stand-up ramen bar" that busy salarymen seem to favour for a quick "duck-in, eat, duck-out" experience. I've come to realize that although I really want to LOVE ramen it doesn't love me. I always feel a bit ill afterwards and squiffy in the tummy - perhaps it's just too rich for me?
Now, forget everything I just said about probably not liking ramen so much as the Miso Ramen I had at a (very) dodgy looking place after a morning of shopping in Fabric Town was GREAT! I think it was so great as it wasn't the rich, fatty pork-based broth that my stomach cannot handle. The Boy's salt-based broth was also a winner. Both were quite light in flavour and the broth wasn't too thick or rich....it was just right.
Our second ramen encounter was at Ramen Street (under Tokyo Station) on our last night and involved the much-lauded "ramen vending machine"....which of course I couldn't work out as I was trying to do both orders for The Boy and I at the same time which is hard if you cannot read Japanese. One of the staff had to come out and help me. Cultural fail, but I'll know better next time.
The idea is that you place your order (and pay) at the vending machine. The machine will then spit out a ticket which you give to the staff as you go inside to take your seat...and then viola, ramen will appear at your table. We both ordered the (very) rich Tonkatsu (pork) broth, which The Boy loved, but it was too much for me. Burp.
We couldn't leave Ramen Street without visiting a nearby confectionary store that sells many many many different kit kat flavours. We'd pretty much only found Green Tea kit kats (after a disappionting visit to the Kit Kat Choclatory). Needless to say we didn't walk away empty handed...
Eating on the street isn't very common in Tokyo so you won't see many street-food vendors like you would in other parts of Asia. Eating is quite a sacred/special thing in Japanese culture and food is something to sit down and enjoy. Eating whilst on the run is pretty much a no-no.
It's confusing then to know how to approach a street-food situation when you find one. I'm assuming some things, like these freaking awesomely delicious Takayoki (Octupus Balls) are OK to eat on the run. You can't exaclty pack them up and take the home as they are meant to be enjoyed fresh and pipping hot (be warned, these will burn a layer of skin off the roof of your mouth if you try to eat them immediately).
Another snack we came across was this great big rice-cracker that is dipped in soy sauce and wrapped in a piece of nori (dried seaweed). Again, not a "take home" snack so we just ate this on the footpath whilst trying not to look like culturally insensitive bogans.
Maatcha doughnut anyone? God bless Krispy Kreme!
I was DEAD keen on going to an Izakaya or two whilst in Tokyo. I had an idea in my head of what these were based on the few Western interpretations I've been to here in Australia (here and here)...a bar that serves food of the snacky variety. The thing is I didn't really know what to look for...as everywhere seemed to serve drinks AND food and nowhere blatantly screamed "I'm an Izakaya, come on in).
There is a famous Izakaya area in Shinjuku called Golden Gai but I got lost trying to find it and we ended up in the red-light district having Hot Pot. It was a delicious hot pot at a roof top bar so in the end it was a win!
My second attempt at finding an Izakaya may have actually led us to an Izakaya, but again I'm not sure? We sat a bar, food was served that was kinda snacky and drinks were drunk. The place also had booths against the back wall and an upstairs area. Izakaya or not? I don't know - what do you think?
We actually went to this place for my 40th birthday dinner and it was pretty great, Izakaya or not Izakaya. We ordered a bunch of delicious things and I got tipsy on Grapefruit Sours. I particularly loved the salted tofu and the grilled chicken but wasn't a fan of the grilled rice balls (too bland).
Of course we couldn't visit Tokyo without a visit to the, now renamed, "Piss Alley" in Shinjuku. Piss Alley got its name after WWII when it was a popular hangout for a feed and a drink. There were no loos so people just peed up against the walls...or wherever. It probably stank of piss, ergo the name of Piss Alley. Nice.
I've read that a fire tore through Piss Alley and when it was rebuilt (with public toilets included) it was renamed Memory Lane. Nice PR move Japan! The area is basically a little enclave of lane-ways near the Shinjuku train line (if you find the Uniqlo store you're close) that has a host of hole-in-the-wall eateries. It's particular famous for its Yakitori and we LOVE Yakitori.
We went here during the day so there aren't too many places open (it's much more happening at night we're told but for us it was too cold to sit in open air places at night), but we find a great little Yakitori place that is basically just a bar with a few stools along side.
We didn't try the horse...or the whale. The Boy wanted to wear his Sea Shepherd hat to Tokyo. Maybe he should've!
All of this walking and eating is probably making you tired...it sure exhausted us, so we headed over to the Starbucks that overlooks the Shibuya "pedestrian scramble" and watched thousands of people cross at the same time. We did the crossing a few times...totally chaotic, yet like everything in Japan...it just seems to work with no dramas.
Of course you cannot visit a foreign country without trying out their McDonalds. This wasn't on my list, but I was feeling peckish as we got ready to fly home from Narita airport. Let me just say that both the burger and cheesy fries were SO good we went back for seconds. I would've gone back for thirds but I'd run out Yen.
Seyonara Japan...see you next year!